Is Russia using Starlink in Ukraine? Congress demands answers

And saying Starlink doesn't work inside Russian borders isn't sufficient...

Starlink terminals are reportedly being used by both sides in Russia's war against Ukraine, but now Congressional representatives want to know why. 

In a letter addressed to SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell, a pair of Democratic reps asked SpaceX to provide a better explanation than what was provided on Twitter last month for how Russia may have obtained and operated Starlink terminals. 

The letter, penned by Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, and Representative Robert Garcia (D-CA), ranking member of the Oversight' Committee's Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs. The pair claim Starlink's use by Russian forces was alarming, and potentially a violation of US sanctions and export controls. 

"According to Ukraine, the misuse of Starlink terminals is 'systemic,' raising additional questions about the efficacy of your company's safeguards and compliance with U.S. sanctions and export controls," Raskin and Garcia said. "We are concerned that you may not have appropriate guardrails and policies in place to ensure your technology is neither acquired directly or indirectly, nor used illegally by Russia."

Both SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk denied supplying Starlink technology to Russia shortly after reports emerged in early February

"SpaceX does not do business of any kind with the Russian Government or its military," The company said on X. "Starlink is not active in Russia, meaning service will not work in that country." 

Musk has already called claims that SpaceX supplied terminals to Russia "categorically false," and stating "to the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have been sold directly or indirectly to Russia." 

"Starlink satellites will not close the link in Russia," Musk added in a February X post.  

Talk about dodging the question

While Musk and SpaceX both assert Starlink won't work in Russia, that's not what Ukrainian officials have claimed, nor what the letter from Congress accuses it of allowing. 

On February 11, 2024, Ukraine's Main Directorate of Intelligence released intercepted audio communications between Russian soldiers that indicated Russian forces "illegally deployed and activated Starlink terminals in certain Russian-occupied areas in Eastern Ukraine," the Congressional letter states. 

Neither Musk nor SpaceX have addressed claims that Starlink is being used by Russian forces in occupied territories - the actual question. SpaceX has not responded to requests for comment. 

The possibility that Starlink is being used by Russian forces isn't out of the question given SpaceX's coverage map of Ukraine, which shows significant overlap with territory Russia has controlled since its invasion of the country in 2022. SpaceX has been providing the Ukrainian military with Starlink service since Russia invaded the country, albeit at times under duress.


SpaceX's map of Starlink service areas in Ukraine - Click to enlarge

While some of the easternmost portion of Ukraine, including the hotly-contested city of Donetsk, aren't covered by Starlink, other regions are.


A map of the current situation in Ukraine, with Russian-controlled territories in red. - Click to enlarge

There is no formal accusation that SpaceX is doing business with Russia directly - only that it might be failing to properly police redirection of its equipment to sanctioned entities like the Russian government. 

"Ukrainian intelligence officials assert that Russian forces have obtained Starlink terminals illegally through third-party actors via neighboring countries," Raskin and Garcia wrote in the letter. "the Departments of Commerce, the Treasury, and Justice repeatedly issued … guidance to U.S. private industry, specifically noting Russian efforts to illegally obtain technology and items through obfuscated third parties." 

The question is whether SpaceX is actually paying attention to that guidance. 

Raskin and Garcia asked Shotwell to explain whether SpaceX has received complaints regarding illegal acquisition of Starlink terminals by Russia and whether it's examined those reports, as well as what sort of policies SpaceX has in place to prevent illegal acquisition or trade of Starlink hardware, among other things. 

"Russian procurement of, use of, or interference with Starlink terminals each has the potential to advance Russia’s brutal and illegitimate invasion of Ukraine," the letter states, which "poses a serious threat to Ukraine’s security, Ukrainian lives, and U.S. national security."

The representatives have asked SpaceX to respond to the letter and provide a briefing on the matter by March 20. We reached out to the Committee and the representatives, but haven't heard back. ®

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